It’s a cult, it’s a cult! These were the words that described the Communidade da Graca in Brazil that Miller and Yamamori write of in Global Pentecostalism: The New Face of Christian Social Engagement. For years, since the church’s founding, an expressed message of health and wealth had been its constant. Along with this theology came cries and claims that it really wasn’t a church at all but a cult – not only from mainline churches throughout Latin America but also from established Pentecostal churches in Brazil such as the Assembly of God.
But transformation has taken place. The Communidade da Graca has become mainstream and other churches have sought to not only silence their criticisms but to join forces and emulate their expression of faith, as have other growing churches in Latin American and Africa. Three global alterations have caused the dynamics to change. According to Miller and Yamamori, one is the demographic shift of global Christianity, to the center South and developing countries from the West. Another is that most of worldwide Christian growth has come by way of Pentecostal churches. Lastly, these churches are maturing to include social change in their gospel. A new vision is replacing “health and wealth” and from only “looking toward the afterlife” to an interest in giving value to those who live in the “Kingdom on Earth.”
The “driving engine” as the book claims, began in my hometown of Topeka, KS but most remember the revival of Azuza Street Church in California that launched the Pentecostal movement. This crusade desired to focus only on the future with little thought for today and has been the cornerstone of Pentecostal theology. As a beacon for the poor and marginalized, hope was offered to all who sought it – not only with a message revolving around Heaven but through uplifting music filled with spiritual embodiment.
Patrick, one of the lead mentors of LGP4 and from Kenya agrees, sharing that “in the past we only preached the gospel, now we are experiencing a paradigm shift to include helping the poor, adding deed to word and deed.”
Although many will say that Pentecostalism has had a social element since its inception, there is an agreement now that a “nascent but becoming development in social ministry, largely non-political, but giving value to all” belief is growing, with many embracing a holistic acceptance of faith. The teachings which bring life in the here and now, are that all people are made in “the image of God, have dignity and are equal in God’s sight.” (Kindle location 69)
Thought generally as non-political, the new middle class that is gravitating to a more stable Pentecostal expression is interested in making changes through politics or without. The effort to live holy lives, stay free from alcohol, practical leadership skills in the church and small group communities helps build a stable middleclass, longing for upward mobility – as did the protestant work ethic for the mainline denominations in Europe and the US years ago.
The authors cite three ways Pentecostalism has the ability to provide change. 1) Religion has the potential to blunt the pain of poverty, because of a better hereafter. 2) Upward mobility is possibility through the followings of the pastor’s teachings. 3) Becoming a part of a supportive community contributes to their social welfare (Kindle location 399)
However, some reoccurring problems I’ve seen in the third-world Pentecostal church are that the general poverty level continues to be prevalent in most, with the exception of the pastors. A very large inequality between pastors and parishioners seems present, especially in the larger churches. It has been explained to me as the need to show what success looks like or to be an example of how God can bless us. The “health and wealth” gospel is still pervasive, at times to the exploitation of the poor themselves as they give all they can to the church for perceived blessings.
Whatever problems lie ahead for the progressive Pentecostal Church, understanding the importance of its place in current Christianity is essential. As Miller and Yamamori say “in terms of analytical frameworks, the most useful theoretical perspective is to identify Pentecostalism as a renewal movement. Without renewal movements, religion simply routinizes and dies as it becomes increasingly formalized.” (Kindle location 2589)
My prayer is that as this progressive movement matures, stabilizes and includes more and more people of means, that it doesn’t lose its passion that initially ignited its worship and hope – and that it can incorporate those essentials to a social relevance.